5 minutes reading time (976 words)

Nehemiah - ". . . think on these things."

Israel Museum - Model of Jerusalem

In the book of Nehemiah, when Israel returns from exile to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, they begin to understand how God wants them to change. Or do they?

Let's look back at why the Israelites were carried off in the first place. Was it because of idolatry? Yes, partly. But there were other things as well. The laws God delivered to the Israelites through Moses provided for needy Israelites to sell themselves as slaves. But the period of enslavement was limited to no more than seven years. In Jeremiah 34:8-17, we read that the Israelites had been keeping other Israelites as slaves longer than the seven years God had prescribed in the law. So, Jeremiah told them to release these slaves. Initially, the "owners" of the people did. But, according to verse 11, their obedience was temporary. Slavery returned. They just couldn't do the right thing for very long.

Jeremiah chapter 6 is like a catalogue of things Israel did wrong. Everyone deals deceitfully (vs. 13). They were not ashamed of their disgusting and vile (abomination) things (vs. 14). God asks them to walk in the old paths in the good way, but they said, "We will not walk in them," (vs. 16). God asks them to listen to the prophets, but they said, "We will not listen," (vs. 17).

Habakkuk 1:1-3 – There is no reference to another nation, so the words here are most likely about Judah. He talks about violence, wickedness and destruction.

From Hosea 4:1,2 - There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery. That's five or six of the ten commandments broken in just two verses.

Amos 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, "Bring us some drinks!"

And in Amos 5:21 "I hate, I despise your religious festivals"

So, yes, the Israelites did worship idols, but they also did a LOT of other blatantly sinful things. God's plan was that while they were in captivity, they would learn what they did wrong and what they needed to do to please God.

Now we can see how things turned out in the book of Nehemiah. Some of the Israelites have returned to Judah and Jerusalem as had been prophesied. They rebuilt the temple a few years before Nehemiah arrived. Under Nehemiah's guidance, the wall was rebuilt in 52 days. Successful story, right? The people had learned their lesson, they had returned to the homeland and rebuilt the two most important things – the temple and the wall. They must be living right!

Well . . . no. In Nehemiah chapter 5, many were so poor they couldn't pay their taxes. They were forced to sell their sons and daughters as slaves to the wealthy. Sounds like something we have heard before.

However, this time there is a person in charge who is willing to do something about it. Nehemiah writes (5:6), "I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words." In v 8 he accuses the nobles and rulers of charging usury – lending money at exorbitant interest rates. To their credit, they do not deny it or make excuses; they are silent. He challenges them to swear an oath to set the slaves free and give the people back their lands. And they fulfilled that vow.

How was Nehemiah able to motivate the people to obey? One word: credibility. For 12 years he did not take the governor's food allowance. Basically, he paid for his own food. Nehemiah had been appointed as governor of the land, but he was willing to do work on the wall just like everyone else. He was a servant leader. So, the nobles were willing to follow his lead when he told them to stop charging usury. They learned to be fair by watching their leader.

By chapter 8, Ezra, the priest, leads the people in restoring some of the feasts required by the law. It appears that, spiritually speaking, Israel has turned a corner. Or have they?

Nehemiah was not in Jerusalem permanently. When Xerxes gave him leave to go to Jerusalem, he asked how long he would be gone. Nehemiah gave him a definite time period. So eventually Nehemiah had to go back to the King. After some time, he returned to Jerusalem and was dismayed to discover that all that progress had been reversed. The Levites, the priestly tribe, had been compensated so poorly that they had to leave their duties in the temple to work to provide for their families. The people were ignoring the law by working on the Sabbath. Vendors who were bringing goods into Jerusalem and buying and selling on the Sabbath. Nehemiah was so upset he threatened to use force.

Well, I guess that story of learning and growing and stopping one thing and doing another is a bit like my life. It's what Jesus warned us about in Matthew 12:43-45. "One evil spirit leaves a man, wanders around and comes back and finds the house (man) cleaned and swept out, but otherwise unoccupied. So, the evil spirit brings with it seven spirits more evil than itself."

What do we learn from this? It's good to stop doing something wrong, but that's not enough by itself. If we don't replace it with something good, we will develop other bad habits. Which is why Paul told us in Philippians 4:8 "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Sounds like good things with which to replace any bad habits. 

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Saturday, 25 September 2021

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